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Prison Debt Forces Ex-Inmate To Be ‘Content With Being Broke’

caption: Karen Taylor works to prevent youth of color from ending up in prison, as she did.
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Karen Taylor works to prevent youth of color from ending up in prison, as she did.
Courtesy of Karen Taylor

Karen Taylor is at a park near where she grew up in Renton. She comes here to pray and to walk. "My mother used to walk this trail," she said. "It's a nice place. Quiet. Serene."

Taylor's childhood here was anything but serene.

She recalled being molested as a child. She acted out at school and was sent to juvenile detention for the first time when she was 12.

Taylor has spent much of her life in prison. Now 50, she has been free for 10 years. She did her time but still has to work hard to pay off her prison debts.

When Taylor was 15, she was arrested for armed robbery and stayed in prison until she was 21. She went in and out of prison for the next 20 years for crimes such as theft and forgery.

"I was living my life like I cared for no one," she explained. "I was having fun, I guess."

Things didn't get real until Taylor was placed in solitary confinement — the "hole" — 17 months straight.

It felt like being in a box, she said. Sometimes she wouldn't get a shower or her scheduled daily hour out of her cell. The power the prison guards had to make these decisions felt to her like "having somebody be your god."

"You’re in that room and you’re furious and can’t do anything but beat on the door and scream and curse."

"That wasn’t fun anymore," she added.

Taylor's prison term was marked by loss: lost time, lost opportunities and loss of her family. Her mother died when she was in prison. Taylor didn't get to say goodbye.

Finally, after almost 25 years of going in and out of prison, Taylor was released for the last time, on Valentine's Day 2005.

"It was a great day," she said.

She decided to put her life on a new track. "I told myself before I got out that if you’re going to stay free you’re going to have to be content with being poor. I say content with being broke."

Taylor rebuilt her life. She is working on an associate's degree in automotive technology and tries to surround herself with positive people and positive events.

However, it is true that for Taylor being free means being broke. She owes more than $20,000 to the court system in court fees and victim restitution.

"On Valentine's Day it will be 11 years that I'll be out," she said, "and I'm still paying."

"It's like a black mark that you wear after you get out."

Taylor said she didn't realize she had so much debt when she was released from prison. She struggles to keep up with payments.

More from NPR: Court Fees Drive Many Poor Defendants Underground

"People don’t understand that if I wasn’t poor, I would have never been stealing," she said, frustrated. "What makes you think I’m going to be any better to pay it [now] than when I went in?"

Legal debts aren't Taylor's only obligations. She said she still owes $1,200 on a car accident, and recently her house flooded.

At times, she said, she has felt suicidal because of her situation. "At my age, not being able to afford things .... It makes me feel depressed."

Eighty percent of felons are in poverty like Taylor. Kim Ambrose, a University of Washington law professor, said that court debt makes it difficult for ex-offenders to stay out of jail, as they can be re-arrested for failure to pay their obligations. "They end up back in the system for violating the terms of their parole or from doing other crimes. It makes no sense."

Still, Taylor is doing her best to overcome these barriers. She is an active member of her church. She mentors underprivileged youth, including a 19-year-old girl at Seattle Youth Center's Drug Court program.

"They need love and attention, and I have a lot of love to give," she said of the young people she works with. "That's my way of giving back to society, and it also helps me to heal the things that I’ve endured from being incarcerated so long at a young age."

Taylor hopes to prevent her fate from happening to young people, especially young people of color. She works with Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), a Seattle organization that focuses on rooting out racism from the criminal justice system. Eventually, she wants to get a bachelor's degree so that she can continue to do this work that she loves.

"I don’t let the stigmatization of my past control my destiny or my future," Taylor said. "I am somebody today. I am beautiful black woman, a beautiful black queen, and I deserve good things."

For people who have been in prison, it can be hard to stay free. But for Taylor, freedom is everything.

RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's program for youth age 16-20ish. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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